As strikes rage in France today, the legacy of May '68 looms large

Why We Wrote This

The nationwide strikes currently racking France aren't just a discrete event. They exist in the shadow of the strikes of May 1968, when student protests nearly exploded into revolution; they still resonate in and shape French society today.

Brandishing red-and-black flags, students clenched their fists in the Marxist-style salute at a mass demonstration of students and workers on the Left Bank of the Seine in Paris on June 1, 1968, to protest against President Charles de Gaulle.

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May 1968 is often remembered in France for its early days of student protests and the police brutality that came with them. But it is also key to understanding how the movement behind the protests shaped France today, 50 years on. The May strikes came at a time when France was a conservative, hierarchical society, dogged by unemployment, political divisions, and a lack of women’s rights. In the frantic days that followed, the country flirted with revolution but never quite reached it. Nonetheless, the issues raised by strikers and their allies – the labor code, public services, the role of trade unions, and cultural and sexual liberation – changed how France operates today. And a vast number of France’s major influencers, including journalists, intellectuals, philosophers, and politicians, are former May '68 activists. “We gained more than women’s rights, a less rigid society, and a stronger minimum wage,” says Erik Neveu, a professor of political science. “We were transformed by May ’68 – the right to have an opinion, to take initiative, and a feeling of legitimacy for the power of the individual.”

Gérard Alezard never threw a stone, vandalized property, or endured the blows of a police baton like many soixante-huitards (sixty-eighters) – those who participated in France’s May 1968 protests. But he remembers those who did.

They were mostly students who had led a protest on May 10 in Paris’s Latin Quarter that ended in a violent confrontation with police. On that notorious evening – “the Night of the Barricades” – thousands of police officers descended on the Left Bank of the Seine River to break up the some 20,000 students who had erected a dozen barricades in protest.

By the next morning, the area resembled a war zone – cars smashed, fires burning, and sidewalks uprooted. More than 400 students were brutally arrested; beaten with batons, sprayed with tear gas, and assaulted. “So many people, myself included, were disgusted by what happened” to them, says Mr. Alezard, who was the head of the Paris branch of the CGT trade union at the time.

France’s May ’68 – in all its glory and myth – is often remembered for its early days of student protests and the police brutality that came with it. But what happened next is what became so notable for the movement itself and how France’s current nationwide transport protest has been shaped, 50 years on. It was in those frantic days that followed May 10 that the labor code, public services, the role of trade unions, and cultural and sexual liberation all evolved, changing how France operates to this day.

“After May 10, there was so much anger and a desire to fight back, to be in solidarity with the students,” says Alezard, who at 82 still remembers those days vividly. “From that moment on, we saw the power of the people.”

Jacques Marqueton/AP/File
Parisian student protesters retreat under blows from police during demonstrations in the Latin Quarter of Paris on May 6, 1968.

Bringing France to a standstill

While many associate the start of the May ’68 strikes with student protests on May 2 and 3, a rising indignation was already brewing across the country before then.

France at the time was a rigidly conservative, hierarchical society, dogged by massive unemployment, vast political divisions, and a relative lack of women’s rights. University students had been protesting since March, with demands ranging from visitation rights for young men and women to each other’s dormitories, to an end to the wars in Vietnam and Algeria.

After the Night of the Barricades, French society went into an uproar against the government. What began as a one-day general strike organized by the CGT on May 13 turned into a month-long shutdown of France’s economy.

Throughout the month of May, union leaders made the rounds to offices, department stores, and factories to instruct workers on how to occupy spaces in an effort to bring the country to a halt. “It was important for us that the employees decided for themselves if and how they protested,” says Alezard. “I felt an enormous amount of pressure to lead the protests responsibly so that the country could advance.”

On May 27, union representatives met with government leaders to negotiate an end to the strikes. While an agreement was never actually signed and the strikes continued until June, their talks set the stage for future improvements to France’s labor code, like a raise to the minimum wage and the right for trade unions to operate within companies.

Marion Fontaine, a historian from the University of Avignon, says that trade union activity during May ’68 had more of an impact than many realize. “In May ’68, France’s trade unions were very strongly divided between the left, the reformists, and the more radical groups,” she says. “The fact that workers were striking – collectively – is what had such an impact then and has carried over to today.”

In early April of this year, railway workers from three trade unions launched a three-month strike to protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s reforms, which they say will privatize railway services. Workers from other sectors have since joined sporadically in the fight too. They accuse Mr. Macron of slowly privatizing the country’s public services, a prized component of French society since World War II.

“There is a lack of evolution when it comes to salaries, working conditions are deteriorating, and thousands of jobs will be cut,” says Gabriel Gaudry, the general secretary of the Paris branch of the trade union Force Ouvrière.

Mr. Gaudry, who participated in the May ’68 strikes when he was 25, led protests this year on May 1. “I would be lying if I said I didn’t hope these current protests shut down the country and blocked the economy like in May ’68.”

#MeToo, 1968

At the same time that workers were fighting for better salaries, conditions, and union rights, France’s feminist movement was taking off. It was only in 1965 that married women could open a bank account in their name and in 1967 that contraception was legalized.

But it wasn’t until May ’68 that women like Michèle Idels comprehended what was missing from French society and, ultimately, from the movement. “There was a certain misogyny during the strikes,” says Ms. Idels, who took part in the strikes of May ’68 as an 18-year-old and is now co-president of feminist organization Alliance Femmes. “Women’s issues were not being addressed…. It was as if we didn’t exist at all.”

Spurred on by what Idels calls the “male arrogance” of the May ’68 movement, feminist activists fixed posters inside the halls of the Sorbonne in June ’68, calling on students to fight male domination. Soon, the Women’s Liberation Movement was born.

The years following May ’68 saw the legalization of abortion, the creation of the first women-run publishing house, a ministerial position dedicated to women’s rights, and a law guaranteeing gender equality in political institutions.

“The movements that came out of May ’68 were able to transform society more quickly in 20 or 30 years than in 2,000 years of history,” says Idels. “It was a historic step for women… the #MeToo movement shows us this heritage, at what point things have advanced.”

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
Employees of French state-owned railway company SNCF and CGT labor union members demonstrate as part of a nationwide strike in Paris on May 3.

Fifty years later

Despite comparisons with the movement five decades ago, the current strikes have failed to stir the public to the same extent. According to an April Ifop poll, just 41 percent of French people supported the railway strike, while 78 percent said they believed the government would push its reforms to the bitter end.

Most union leaders agree that in order to replicate the powerful nature of May ’68, more workers from more sectors will have to join the strike. Working against them, though, is a much different society, with fewer political and social factions. Even student activists have organized in support of the strikers – a sort of reverse of how May ’68 unfolded – occupying buildings at several universities across the country since March. But their efforts have not sparked wider support.

And yet, it is the romantic notions which remain intact from May ’68 that have left such a lasting mark in the French collective memory.

“We gained more than women’s rights, a less rigid society, and a stronger minimum wage,” says Erik Neveu, a professor of political science at Sciences Po Rennes. “We were transformed by May ’68 – the right to have an opinion, to take initiative, and a feeling of legitimacy for the power of the individual.”

Professor Neveu says that the majority of May soixante-huitards have remained politically and socially engaged. A vast number of France’s major influencers – journalists, intellectuals, philosophers, and politicians – are former May ’68 activists.

Alezard, too, has refused to stay quiet, even 50 years since he first helped lead one of France’s most revered social movements. Now, he’s an unofficial economic advisor to the CGT and stands in support of the current railway strike.

“We did a lot of soul searching after May ’68, where did we go wrong, how can we improve in the future,” says Alezard. “But one thing is for sure. If you want something, you have to fight for it.”

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